Private Cygnus Cargo Carrier departs Space Station Complex

Following a picture perfect blastoff from NASA’s frigid Virginia spaceport and a flawless docking at the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-January, the privately built Cygnus cargo resupply vehicle has completed its five week long and initial operational station delivery mission and departed the facility early this morning, Tuesday, Feb. 18.

The Expedition 38 crewmembers Michael Hopkins of NASA and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) demated the Orbital Sciences Cygnus commercial spacecraft from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node using the Canadian built robotic arm at about 5:15 a.m. EST.

The cylindrically shaped ship was released from the grappling snare on the terminus of the 57 foot long extended arm at about 6:41 a.m. EST and with a slight shove as both vehicles were flying at 17500 mph and some 260 miles (415 km) altitude above Earth over the southern tip of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean.

The astronauts were working at a robotics work station in the windowed Cupola module facing the Earth. The arm was quickly pulled back about 5 feet (1.5 m) after triggering the release from the grappling pin.

NASA TV carried the operation live. Station and arm cameras provided spectacular video views of the distinctive grey cylindrical Cygnus back dropped by the massive, cloud covered blue Earth as it was released and sped away.

The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station's robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth's atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station’s robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus was commanded to fire its jets for the departure maneuvers to quickly retreat away from the station. It was barely a speck only 5 minutes after the arm release maneuver by Wakata and Hopkins.

“The departure was nominal,” said Houston mission control. “Cygnus is on its way.”

The solar powered Cygnus is America’s newest commercial space freighter and was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership aimed at restoring the cargo up mass capabilities lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

Cygnus, as well as the SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel, functions as an absolutely indispensable “lifeline” to keep the massive orbiting outpost alive and humming with the science for which it was designed.

The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station's robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth's atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus private cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. was released from the station’s robotic arm at 6:41am EST, Feb 18. It will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA TV

The freighter delivered a treasure trove of 1.5 tons of vital research experiments, crew provisions, two dozen student science projects, belated Christmas presents, fresh fruit and more to the million pound orbiting lab complex and its six man crew.

The milestone flight dubbed Orbital 1, or Orb-1, began with the flawless Jan. 9 blast off of Cygnus mounted atop Orbital Sciences’ two stage, private Antares booster on the maiden operational launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility along Virginia’s eastern shore. See a gallery of launch photos and videos – here and here.

“Today’s launch gives us the cargo capability to keep the station going,” said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced spaceflight programs group, and former Space Shuttle astronaut.

Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS.  Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares soars to space on Jan. 9, 2014 from NASA Wallops on Virginia coast on the Orb-1 mission to the ISS. Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

And NASA’s commercial cargo initiative is even more important following the recent extension of station operations to at least 2024.

“I think it’s fantastic that the Administration has committed to extending the station,” Culbertson told me following the launch at NASA Wallops.

“So extending it gives not only commercial companies but also researchers the idea that Yes I can do long term research on the station because it will be there for another 10 years. And I can get some significant data.”

Following a two day orbital chase the Cygnus spacecraft reached the station on Jan. 12.

The ship is named in honor of NASA shuttle astronaut C. Gordon Fullerton who passed away in 2013.

Science experiments weighing 1000 pounds accounted for nearly 1/3 of the cargo load.

Among those were 23 student designed experiments representing over 8700 K-12 students involving life sciences topics ranging from amoeba reproduction to calcium in the bones to salamanders.

The students are participants of the Student SpaceFlight Experiments Program (SSEP) sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE).

Over 20 of the students attended the launch at Wallops. The student experiments selected are from 6 middle school and high school teams from Washington, DC, Traverse, MI, Downingtown and Jamestown, PA, North Charleston, SC and Hays County, TX.

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops Science experiments from these students representing six schools across  America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops
These are among the students benefiting from ISS extension
Science experiments from these students representing six schools across America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“More than half the student experiments were activated within four days of arrival,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, Director of the NCESSE, told Universe Today exclusively.

Ant colonies from three US states were also on board to study “swarm behavior.” The “ants in space” experiment was among the first to be unloaded from Cygnus to insure they are well fed for their expedition on how they fare and adapt in zero gravity.

33 cubesats were also aboard. Several of those were deployed last week from the Japanese Experiment Module airlock.

The Orbital-1 mission was the first of 8 operational cargo logistics flights scheduled under Orbital Sciences’ multi-year $1.9 Billion Commercial Resupply Services contract (CRS) with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo through 2016.

Cygnus was berthed at the ISS for some 37 days.

After fully unpacking the 2,780 pounds (1,261 kilograms) of supplies packed inside Cygnus, the crew reloaded it with all manner of no longer need trash and have sent it off to a fiery and destructive atmospheric reentry to burn up high over the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 19.

“The cargo ship is now a trash ship,” said NASA astronaut Cady Coleman.

“Getting rid of the trash frees up a lot of valuable and much needed space on the station.”

When it reaches a sufficiently safe separation distance from the ISS, mission controllers will fire its engines two times to slow the Cygnus and begin the final deorbit sequence starting at about 8:12 a.m. on Wednesday.

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12
Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Cygnus departure is required to make way for the next private American cargo freighter – the SpaceX Dragon, which is now slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on March 16 atop the company’s upgraded Falcon 9 booster.

Two additional Antares/Cygnus flights are slated for this year.

They are scheduled to lift off around May 1 and early October, said Culbertson.

Indeed there will be a flurry of visiting vehicles to the ISS throughout this year and beyond – creating a space traffic jam of sorts.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port. Credit: NASA TV
ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port. Credit: NASA TV

Doubly Historic Day for Private Space: Cygnus docks at Station & Next Gen Falcon 9 Soars

The Cygnus cargo spacecraft is just a few feet away from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 during rendezvous and berthing on Sept 29, 2013. Credit: NASA
Updated – See Falcon 9 launch video below[/caption]

Today (Sept. 29) was a doubly historic day for private spaceflight! And a boon to NASA as well!

Early this morning the Orbital Sciences Cygnus commercial cargo ship docked at the International Space Station (ISS) speeding along some 250 miles (400 km) overhead in low Earth orbit.

Barely a few hours later the Next Generation commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soared to space on a demonstration test flight from the California coast carrying a Canadian satellite to an elliptical earth orbit.

These missions involved the dramatic maiden flights for both Cygnus and the upgraded Falcon 9.

And both were high stakes endeavors, with literally billions of dollars and the future of commercial spaceflight, as well as the ISS, on the line. Their significance cannot be overstated!

Falcon 9 lifts off from SpaceX’s pad at Vandenberg on Sept 29, 2013, carrying Canada's CASSIOPE satellite to orbit. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 lifts off from SpaceX’s pad at Vandenberg on Sept 29, 2013, carrying Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Both Cygnus and Falcon 9 were developed with seed money from NASA in a pair of public-private partnerships between NASA and Orbital Sciences and SpaceX under NASA’s COTS commercial transportation initiative aimed at fostering the development of America’s private space industry to deliver critical and essential supplies to the ISS.

The powerful new Falcon 9 will also be used to send cargo to the ISS.

America completely lost its capability to send humans and cargo to the ISS when NASA’s space shuttles were retired in 2011. Orbital Sciences and SpaceX were awarded NASA contracts worth over $3 Billion to restore the unmanned cargo resupply capability over 20 flights totally.

The Cygnus spacecraft put on a spectacular space ballet – and was no worse for the wear after its docking was delayed a week due to an easily fixed communications glitch.

The Cygnus commercial resupply craft is installed by the Canadarm2 to the Harmony node. Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus commercial resupply craft is installed by the Canadarm2 to the Harmony node.
Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus is a privately developed resupply vessel built by Orbital Sciences Corp and Thales Alenia Space that is a crucial railroad to orbit for keeping the massive orbital lab complex well stocked with everyday essentials and science experiments that are the purpose of the ISS.

Cygnus was grappled in free drift by Expedition 37 space station astronauts Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg at about 7 a.m. EDT Sunday morning.

The pair were working at two robotics work stations from inside the Cupola and Destiny modules. They used the stations 57 foot long Canadarm2 to snare Cygnus at a distance of about 30 feet (10 meters). They gradually motioned the arm closer.

Running a bit ahead of schedule they successfully berthed Cygnus at the earth facing port of the Harmony module by about 8:44 a.m. EDT.

Cygnus was launched to orbit on its inaugural flight on Sept. 18 atop Orbital’s commercial Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern shore of Virginia.

Sept. 22 had been the initially targeted station docking date for this demonstration mission.

Hatches to Cygnus will be opened on Monday, Sept. 30 after completing leak checks.

“Today, with the successful berthing of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo module to the ISS, we have expanded America’s capability for reliably transporting cargo to low-Earth orbit, “ said NASA Admisistrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

“It is an historic milestone as this second commercial partner’s demonstration mission reaches the ISS, and I congratulate Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them to make it happen.”

“Orbital joins SpaceX in fulfilling the promise of American innovation to maintain America’s leadership in space. As commercial partners demonstrate their new systems for reaching the Station, we at NASA continue to focus on the technologies to reach an asteroid and Mars,” said Bolden.

Cygnus delivers about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the Expedition 37 crew.

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasted off from Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9 a.m. PDT (12 p.m. EDT).

Here’s a video of the launch:

It successfully deployed Canada’s 1,060 pound (481 kg) Cascade, Smallsat, and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) weather satellite and several additional small satellites.

This powerful new version of the Falcon 9 dubbed v1.1 is powered by a cluster of nine of the new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines and can therefore boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS and beyond.

The next generation Falcon 9 is a monster. It’s much taller than a standard Falcon 9 – some 22 stories vs. 13.

It could launch from Cape Canaveral as early as this Fall.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Cygnus, Antares, SpaceX, Curiosity, Mars rovers, MAVEN, Orion, LADEE and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 8: NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Antares rocket lifts off at 10:58 a.m. EDT Sept 18 with commercial Cygnus cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket lifts off at 10:58 a.m. EDT Sept 18 with commercial Cygnus cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares and Cygnus streak to space and the ISS from NASA Wallops on Sept. 18, 2013.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares and Cygnus streak to space and the ISS from NASA Wallops on Sept. 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

How to Spot Commercial Cygnus Craft Chasing ISS for Sept. 22 Coupling

After launching to orbit atop the Antares rocket on Sept. 18, the first ever Cygnus cargo spacecraft is chasing the ISS and set to dock on Sept 22. Until then you have the opportunity to track it in the night skies. This full scale, high fidelity mockup of the Orbital Sciences/Thales Alenia Cygnus gives a feel for it being similar in size to a small room. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Story Updated: Further details and photos – and NASA TV link to Live Docking Coverage [/caption]

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – Following Wednesday morning’s (Sept. 18) spectacular blastoff of the Antares rocket with the commercial Cygnus resupply spacecraft, sky watchers now have a very limited window of opportunity to spot the maiden Cygnus chasing down the International Space Station (ISS) in the early morning skies before it arrives for the historic 1st rendezvous and docking on Sunday morning, Sept 22.

So between now and early Sunday you have the chance to gaze skywards and see and photograph history’s first Earth orbiting Cygnus hunting the ISS and gradually close in for the delicate coupling maneuver.

Here’s our guide on ‘How to Spot Cygnus’.

Sighting opportunities are available worldwide from at least North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa according to NASA’s ‘Spot the Station’ website – here. See more websites listed below.

Update 4 a.m. Sunday Sept 22– Cygnus Rendezvous Delayed 48 Hours due to communications glitch
Update Sept 23: delayed to no earlier than Saturday due to Soyuz launch on Wednesday. Thus more chances to view!

Time is of the essence! So don’t delay to check this out!

Since the successful separation of the first Cygnus – built by Orbital Sciences and Thales Alenia – from Antares, the Earth orbiting vehicle has been successfully firing its hydrazine fueled thrusters to move ever closer to the massive orbiting lab complex – at a rate of 82 statute miles per orbit..

Artist rendering of Cygnus spacecraft approaching the International Space Station
Artist rendering of Cygnus spacecraft approaching the International Space Station

If all of the ten on orbit maneuvering tests proceed satisfactorily, Cygnus will reach the vicinity of the station on Sunday early morning (US East Coast time).

“There are some ‘goodies’ stowed on board for the crew’s enjoyment,” Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s program manager for commercial crew and cargo, told Universe Today at NASA Wallops.

ISS astronauts Karen Nyberg (NASA) and Luca Parmitano (ESA) are scheduled to grapple Cygnus with the station’s Canadian built robotic arm between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m. EDT, if all goes well.

Nyberg and Parmitano, working at a robotic work station in the Cupola module, are due to install the cargo carrier at an earth facing docking port on the Harmony pressurized module as early as 9 a.m. EDT, Sept 22.

Antares rocket lifts off at 10:58 a.m. EDT Sept 18 with commercial Cygnus cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket lifts off at 10:58 a.m. EDT Sept 18 with commercial Cygnus cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

It’s the same docking port already used by the SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel on three successful missions to date since 2012.

Cameras on the second stage captured this amazing image of the Cygnus spacecraft separating from the rocket into orbit.
Cameras on the second stage captured this amazing image of the Cygnus spacecraft separating from the rocket into orbit.
Although Cygnus is much smaller than the ISS, it should still be visible – weather permitting of course.

At 17 feet (5 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) wide, Cygnus is the size of a small room.

In fact, while I was at NASA Wallops this week reporting on the Antares launch for Universe Today, I had a chance to visit a full scale, high fidelity mockup of Cygnus built for Orbital Sciences and on display at the local community center in Chincoteague, VA.

The Cygnus display model gives one a great feel for just how big Cygnus really is- see my photos herein.

Front view showing docking mechanism and hatch of Cygnus module in this full scale, high fidelity mockup of the Orbital Sciences/Thales Alenia spacecraft gives a feel for it being similar in size to a small room.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Front view showing docking mechanism and hatch of Cygnus module in this full scale, high fidelity mockup of the Orbital Sciences/Thales Alenia spacecraft gives a feel for it being similar in size to a small room. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

A full size human mannequin standing inside showed that a human can fit comfortably inside.

Thales Alenia Space in Italy designed and constructed the 17 foot ( 5 meter) long Cygnus pressurized module under contract with Orbital.

“Thales Alenia has actually built 50% of the pressurized modules currently comprising the ISS,” said Luigi Quaglino, Thales Alenia Senior Vice President.

“We have built 25 pressurized space modules and learned a lot along the way,” Quaglino told Universe Today at NASA Wallops.

The ISS is the largest manmade object in orbit. It’s the size of a football field and the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon thanks also to the huge, reflecting solar arrays.

Cygnus will be significantly dimmer, but nevertheless should be readily visible.

Look for a ‘star’ moving gradually against the backdrop of stars trailing behind the ISS that likewise appears as a bright moving ‘star’.

ISS streaks over Princeton, NJ - time lapse image.  Credit: Ken Kremer
ISS streaks over Princeton, NJ – time lapse image. Credit: Ken Kremer

As Sunday approaches, the gap between the ISS and Cygnus narrows.

On Thursday Cygnus was trailing about 10 minutes behind the ISS. Whereas on Friday and Saturday, the gap narrows down to roughly 4 minutes and then just 1 minute.

You can also try and photograph the ISS and Cygnus trails by mounting your camera on a tripod and leaving the shutter open at least several seconds and longer. Send me any cool time lapse photos to post here at Universe Today.

Many folks have never seen an ISS flyover and this is a fantastic time to start as the dynamic duo speed merrily across the nighttime sky.

To determine if there are any favorable sighting opportunities in your area, check out NASA’s Spot the Station website – here.

Check the NASA website for a detailed listing of the precise times, elevations, direction and durations. It’s an easy to use viewing guide. Just plug in the particulars of the country in which you live.

Another great source is Heaven’s Above – here

Also check Spaceweather.com – here

And Orbital Sciences reports that “AGI has developed a slick interactive 2D/3D simulation that allows you to track the location of Cygnus in real-time.”

Details here and here

I have personally watched the SpaceX Dragon, European ATV and Japanese HTV cargo carriers streaking through the night sky, trailing a few minutes behind the ISS. And it’s always a thrill.

The cargo vessel will deliver about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the Expedition 37 crew.

Cygnus will remain attached to the ISS for about a month. The astronauts will unload the supplies including few goodies starting on Monday. They they’ll pack it with trash. After undocking Cygnus will come to a flaming finale by burning up upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

So there should be a final opportunity to view it circling Earth.

NASA Television coverage of the arrival and capture of Cygnus will begin at 4:30 a.m. EDT

Streaming video will be available on NASA’s website at http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

Saturday evening Update:

NASA has given the GO for Sunday morning Docking !

Happy Viewing and Clear Skies

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Cygnus, Antares, LADEE, Curiosity, Mars rovers, MAVEN, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 8: NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

1st operational Cygnus pressurized cargo module from Orbital Sciences Corp. & Thales Alenia Space sits inside high bay clean room facility at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA for preflight processing. This Cygnus spacecraft arrived from Italy and may launch to the ISS as early as December 2013 from Wallops launch pad 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
1st operational Cygnus pressurized cargo module from Orbital Sciences Corp. & Thales Alenia Space sits inside high bay clean room facility at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA for preflight processing. This Cygnus spacecraft arrived from Italy and may launch to the ISS as early as December 2013 from Wallops launch pad 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Ken Kremer (Universe Today)and Antares rocket at NASAWallops Launch Complex 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer (Universe Today) and Antares rocket at NASA Wallops Launch Complex 0A. Credit: Ken Kremer

How to See the Historic Antares/Cygnus Launch to Space Station on Sept. 18

Top of the Rock – New York City
Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft approximate launch trajectory view as should be seen from atop Rockefeller Center, NYC, on Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT – weather permitting – after blastoff from NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: Orbital Sciences
See more Antares launch trajectory viewing graphics below[/caption]

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – “All Systems Are GO” for the Sept. 18 launch of Orbital Sciences Antares commercial rocket carrying the first ever fully functional Cygnus commercial resupply vehicle to orbit on the history making first flight blasting off from NASA’s Wallops Island Facility– along the eastern shore of Virginia and bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Here’s our guide on “How to See the Antares/Cygnus Launch” – complete with viewing maps and trajectory graphics from a variety of prime viewing locations courtesy of Orbital Sciences, the private company that developed both the Antares rocket and Cygnus spaceship aimed at keeping the ISS fully operational for science research.

And although the launch is slated for late morning it should still be visible to millions of spectators along a lengthy swath of the US East Coast from North Carolina to Connecticut – weather permitting – who may have never before witnessed such a mighty rocket launch.

The daylight liftoff of the powerful two stage Antares rocket is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept 18 at 10:50 a.m. EDT from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA Wallops Island, Virginia. The launch window extends 15 minutes to 11:05 a.m.

Up top is the view as anticipated from “The Top of the Rock” or Rockefeller Center in New York City. See below the extraordinary image of LADEE’s launch from “Top of the Rock” by Ben Cooper to compare the day and night time sighting delights.

In anticipation of liftoff, the Antares rocket was rolled out to Pad 0A on Friday morning Sept. 13 and I was on hand for the entire event – see my rollout photos here and upcoming.

Seaside panoramic view of Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft after rollout to Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops at the Virginia Eastern Shore  on Sept. 13, 2013. Blastoff for the ISS is slated for Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Seaside panoramic view of Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft after rollout to Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops at the Virginia Eastern Shore on Sept. 13, 2013. Blastoff for the ISS is slated for Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT. LADEE launch pad 0B stands adjacent to right of Antares.
Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Here’s a hi res version of the viewing map courtesy of NASA Wallops Flight Facility:

Antares/Cygnus Launch - Hi Res Visibility map The Antares/Cygnus daylight rocket launch on Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT from NASA Wallops, VA.  will potentially be visible to millions of spectators along the Eastern US coast from Connecticut to North Carolina -weather permitting. This high resolution map shows the regions of visibility over time in the seconds after the rocket launch on a demonstration cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.  Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility
Antares/Cygnus Launch – Hi Res Visibility map
The Antares/Cygnus daylight rocket launch on Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT from NASA Wallops, VA. will potentially be visible to millions of spectators along the Eastern US coast from Connecticut to North Carolina -weather permitting. This high resolution map shows the regions of visibility over time in the seconds after the rocket launch on a demonstration cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility

The Antares launch follows closely on the heels of the spectacularly bright Sept. 6 nighttime Moon shot blastoff of the Minotaur V rocket that successfully injected NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter into its translunar trajectory.

And just as was the case with the Minotaur V and LADEE, you don’t have to be watching locally to join in and experience all the fun and excitement. As with any NASA launch, you can also follow along with up to the minute play by play by watching the NASA TV webcast online or on smartphones, iPods or laptops.

Atlantic City
Atlantic City

It’s hard to say exactly how long and how bright the rockets flames and exhaust trail will be visible since it depends on the constantly changing lighting, prevailing clouds and overall weather conditions.

But one thing is for sure. If you don’t go outside and watch you’re giving up a great opportunity.

And keep in mind that Antares will be moving significantly slower than the Minotaur V.

Herein are a series of graphics showing the Antares trajectory and what you should see during firings of both stages from the perspective of standing on the ground or skyscrapers at a variety of popular destinations including Annapolis, the US Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, National Air and Space Museum, Atlantic City, NJ, New York City and more.

Capitol East-Front Steps
Capitol East-Front Steps
Goddard Space Flight Center - GSFC
Goddard Space Flight Center – GSFC
Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft after rollout to Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility Facility, VA.,on Sept. 13, 2013. Blastoff is slated for Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT.  LADEE launch pad 0B stands adjacent to right of Antares.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft after rollout to Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility Facility, VA.,on Sept. 13, 2013. Blastoff is slated for Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT. LADEE launch pad 0B stands adjacent to right of Antares. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The goal of the mission is to demonstrate the safe and successful launch, rendezvous and docking of the privately developed Cygnus cargo carrier with the International Space Station (ISS) and delivery of 1300 pounds of essential supplies, food, clothing, spare parts and science gear to the six person resident human crews – currently Expedition 37.

Although it’s the 2nd launch of Antares following the maiden flight in April, this is the first flight of the Cygnus commercial delivery system. The demonstration and testing will be the same as what SpaceX accomplished in 2012 with their competing Falcon 9/Dragon architecture.

The mission is designated Orb-D1 and is funded with seed money by NASA’s COTS program to replace the cargo delivery duties of NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle orbiters.

Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
Richmond
Richmond

For those who are traveling to witness the launch locally in the Chincoteague, Va., area, there will be two public viewing sites said Jeremy Eggers, NASA Wallops Public Affairs Officer in an interview with Universe Today.

“There will be are two local sites open to the public,” Eggers told me. “Folks can watch at either the NASA Wallops Flight facility Visitors Center (http://sites.wff.nasa.gov/wvc) or the beach at Assateague National Seashore (http://www.nps.gov/asis/index.htm).”

“There will be loudspeakers to follow the progress of the countdown, but no TV screens as done with the LADEE launch.”

National Air & Space Udvar-Hazy Museum
National Air & Space Udvar-Hazy Museum
Annapolis
Annapolis

So far the weather outlook is promising with a 75% chance of “GO” with favorable conditions at launch time.

NASA Television coverage of the Antares launch will begin at 10:15 a.m. on Sept 18 – (www.nasa.gov/ntv).

Be sure to watch for my continuing Antares and LADEE mission reports from on site at NASA’s Wallops Launch Pads in sunny Virginia – reporting for Universe Today.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Cygnus, Antares, LADEE, Curiosity, Mars rovers, MAVEN, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Sep 17/18: LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 8: LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

This magnificent view of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter launched on Friday night Sept 6, on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from Virginia was captured by space photographer Ben Cooper perched atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launchphotography.com
This magnificent view of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter launched on Friday night Sept 6, on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from Virginia was captured by space photographer Ben Cooper perched atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. Compare this actual launch view to the graphic calculated for Antares (above) as seen from the exact same location atop Rockefeller Center. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launchphotography.com

Antares Maiden Soar Pierces Virginia Sky and delivers NASA SmartPhone Pioneer Nanosats to Orbit

The privately developed Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. successfully blasted off on its maiden test flight from the shores of Virginia on April 21 at 5 p.m. EDT from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad-0A at NASA Wallops – thereby inaugurating the new commercial space race and delivered a pioneering trio of low cost NASA Smartphone nanosatellites dubbed PhoneSat to orbit.

The 13 story Antares rocket pierced the chilly but cloudless clear blue Virginia skies as “the biggest, loudest and brightest rocket ever to launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility,” said former station astronaut and now Orbital Sciences manager Frank Culbertson.

Antares picture perfect liftoff marked the first step in a public/private collaboration between NASA and Orbital Sciences to restart cargo delivery services to the International Space Station (ISS) that were lost following the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Antares accelerates to orbit on April 21, 2013 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Mark Usciak/AmericaSpace
Antares accelerates to orbit on April 21, 2013 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Mark Usciak/AmericaSpace

The test flight was dubbed the A-One Test Launch Mission and also signified the first launch from Americas newest space port at Pad-0A.

The primary goal of this test flight – dubbed the A-One mission – was to test the fully integrated Antares rocket and boost a simulated version of the Cygnus cargo carrier – known as a mass simulator – into a target orbit of 250 x 300 kilometers and inclined 51.6 degrees.

Antares also lofted the trio of off-the-shelf-smartphone “PhoneSats” to orbit. The three picture taking satellites are named Alexander, Graham and Bell and could be the lowest-cost satellites ever flown in space.

“The Phonesats cost about $3500 each,” said Andrew Petro, NASA Small Satellite Program executive, to Universe Today. “They are deployed after separation.”

Andrew Petro, NASA Small Satellite Program executive, holds NASA Smartphone Phonesat replica launched on Antares test flight on April 21, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Andrew Petro, NASA Small Satellite Program executive, holds NASA Smartphone Phonesat replica launched on Antares test flight on April 21, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The goal of NASA’s PhoneSat mission is to determine whether a consumer-grade smartphone can be used as the main flight avionics of a capable satellite but at a fraction of the cost.

NASA reports that all three lithium battery powered nanosats are functioning and transmitting data to multiple ground stations.

Two of the cubesats are PhoneSat version 1.0 while the other is the more advanced PhoneSat version 2.0. They were developed by engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Calif.

Each square shaped smartphone measures about 4 inches (10 cm) per side, weighs about 4 pounds and is the size of a coffee mug. The smartphone serves as the cubesats onboard computer – see my photos.

NASA Smartphone Phonesat replica. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
NASA Smartphone Phonesat replica. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The cameras will be used for Earth photography. Imaging data will be transmitted in chunks and then stitched together later.

The third time was the charm for Antares following a pair of launch scrubs due to a technical glitch in the final minutes of the initial countdown attempt on Wednesday, April 17 and unacceptable winds on Saturday, April 20.

The rocket flew on a southeasterly trajectory and was visible for about 4 minutes.

This test flight was inserted into the manifest to reduce risk and build confidence for the follow on missions which will fly the fully outfitted Cygnus resupply spacecraft that will dock at the ISS, starting as early as this summer.

The two stage Antares is a medium class rocket similar to the Delta II and SpaceX Falcon 9.

The dummy Cygnus payload was outfitted with instrumentation to collect aerodynamic data until separation from the 2nd stage. That marked the successful conclusion of the A-One mission and the end of all data transmissions.

It will fly in earth orbit for about two weeks or so until atmospheric friction causes the orbit to decay and a fiery reentry.

Frank Culbertson post launch media interview.  Credit: Brent Houston
Frank Culbertson post launch media interview. Credit: Brent Houston

The Antares first stage is powered by dual liquid fueled AJ26 first stage rocket engines that generate a combined total thrust of some 750,000 lbs – original built in the Soviet Union as NK-33 model engines.

The upper stage features an ATK Castor 30 solid rocket motor with thrust vectoring. Antares can loft payloads weighing over 5000 kg to LEO. The 2nd stage will be upgraded starting with the 4th flight.

Antares rocket erect at the Eastern shore of Virginia slated for maiden liftoff on April 17.  Only a few hundred feet of beach sand and a miniscule sea wall separate the Wallops Island pad from the Atlantic Ocean waves and Mother Nature.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket erect at the Eastern shore of Virginia slated for maiden liftoff on April 17. Only a few hundred feet of beach sand and a miniscule sea wall separate the Wallops Island pad from the Atlantic Ocean waves and Mother Nature. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The Antares/Cygnus system was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to replace the ISS cargo resupply capability previously tasked to NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle fleet.

Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus system is similar in scope to the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon system. Both firms won lucrative NASA contracts to deliver approximately 20,000 kilograms each of supplies and science equipment to the ISS.

The goal of NASA’s COTS initiative is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Orbital will launch at least eight Antares/Cygnus resupply missions to the ISS at a cost of $1.9 Billion

Up Close with Antares beautifully decaled nose NASA Wallops Pad 0-A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Up Close with Antares beautifully decaled nose NASA Wallops Pad 0-A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Ken Kremer
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Learn more about Antares, Orion, SpaceX, Curiosity and NASA robotic and human spaceflight missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Antares accelerates to orbit on April 21, 2013 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Mark Usciak/AmericaSpace
Antares accelerates to orbit on April 21, 2013 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Mark Usciak/AmericaSpace
Antares at MARS Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia . Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares at MARS Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia . Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Antares Rocket Erected at Virginia Pad for Inaugural April 17 Launch – Photo Gallery

1st fully integrated Antares rocket – decaled with huge American flag – stands firmly erect at seaside Launch Pad 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 6 April 2013 following night time rollout. Maiden Antares test launch is scheduled for 17 April 2013. Later operational flights are critical to resupply the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com).
See Antares rollout and erection photo gallery below[/caption]

For the first time ever, the new and fully integrated commercial Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences was rolled out to its oceanside launch pad on a rather chilly Saturday morning (April 6) and erected at the very edge of the Eastern Virginia shoreline in anticipation of its maiden launch slated for April 17.

The inaugural liftoff of the privately developed two stage rocket is set for 5 p.m. from the newly constructed launch pad 0-A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

And Universe Today was there! See my photo gallery herein.

Antares is the most powerful rocket ever to ascend near major American East Coast population centers, unlike anything before. The launch is open to the public and is generating buzz.

And this is one very cool looking rocket.

Antares rocket begins 1st ever rollout from processing hanger to NASA Wallops launch pad - beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket begins 1st ever rollout from processing hanger to NASA Wallops launch pad – beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The maiden April 17 launch is actually a test flight dubbed the A-One Test Launch Mission.

The goal of the A-One mission is to validate that Antares is ready to launch Orbital‘s Cygnus capsule on a crucial docking demonstration and resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as this summer.

The 1 mile horizontal rollout trek of the gleaming white rocket from the NASA integration hanger to the pad on a specially designed trailer began in the dead of a frosty, windy night at 4:30 a.m. – and beneath a picturesque moon.

“We are all very happy and proud to get Antares to the pad today for the test flight,” Orbital ground operations manager Mike Brainard told Universe Today in an interview at Launch Complex 0-A.

The rocket was beautifully decaled with a huge American flag as well as the Antares, Cygnus and Orbital logos.

Raising Antares at NASA Wallops. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Raising Antares at NASA Wallops. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Antares was transported aboard the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL), a multifunctional, specialized vehicle that also slowly raised the rocket to a vertical position on the launch pad a few hours later, starting at about 1 p.m. under clear blue skies.

This first ever Antares erection took about 30 minutes. The lift was postponed for several hours after arriving at the pad as Orbital personal monitored the continually gusting winds approaching the 29 knot limit and checked all pad and rocket systems to insure safety.

The TEL vehicle also serves as a support interface between the 133-foot Antares and the range of launch complex systems.

Antares transported atop aboard the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com
Antares transported atop aboard the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) beneath the Moon on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com

Now that Antares stands vertical, “We are on a clear path to a launch date of April 17, provided there are no significant weather disruptions or major vehicle check-out delays between now and then,” said Mr. Michael Pinkston, Orbitals Antares Program Manager.

Antares is a medium class rocket similar to the Delta II and SpaceX Falcon 9.

For this test flight Antares will boost a simulated version of the Cygnus carrier – known as a mass simulator – into a target orbit of 250 x 300 kilometers and inclined 51.6 degrees.

Antares rolls up the ramp to Launch Complex 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rolls up the ramp to Launch Complex 0-A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on 6 April 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The Antares first stage is powered by dual liquid fueled AJ26 first stage rocket engines that generate a combined total thrust of some 680,000 lbs. The upper stage features a Castor 30 solid rocket motor with thrust vectoring. Antares can loft payloads weighing over 5000 kg to LEO.

The Antares/Cygnus system was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to replace the ISS cargo resupply capability previously tasked to NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle fleet.

Up Close with Antares beautifully decaled nose NASA Wallops Pad 0-A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Up Close with Antares beautifully decaled nose at NASA Wallops Pad 0-A. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus system is similar in scope to the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon system. Both firms won lucrative NASA contracts to deliver approximately 20,000 kilograms of supplies and equipment to the ISS.

The goal of NASA’s COTS initiative is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Orbital will launch at least eight Antares/Cygnus resupply missions to the ISS at a cost of $1.9 Billion

The maiden Antares launch has been postponed by about 2 years due to delays in laiunch pad construction and validating the rocket and engines for flight- similar in length to the start up delays experienced by SpaceX for Falcon 9 and Dragon.

Read my prior Antares story detailing my tour of the launch complex following the successful 29 sec hot-fire engine test that cleared the path for the April 17 liftoff – here & here.

Watch for my continuing reports through liftoff of the Antares A-One Test flight.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Antares, SpaceX, Curiosity and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus Orion, SpaceX, Antares, the Space Shuttle and more! NEAF Astronomy Forum, Suffern, NY

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Only a few hundred feet of beach sand and a  low sea wall separate the pad from the Atlantic Ocean and Mother Nature and potential catastrophe. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com
Only a few hundred feet of beach sand and a low sea wall separate the Wallops Island pad from the Atlantic Ocean and Mother Nature and potential catastrophe. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Thumbs Up for Antares ! - from NASA Wallops Media team and Space journalists.  Ken at right. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Thumbs Up for Antares ! – from NASA Wallops Media team and Space journalists. Ken at right. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

SpaceX Dragon Sealed for Earth Return on May 31

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The historic flight of the first private spaceship to ever connect to the International Space Station (ISS) has entered its waning hours and by all accounts it’s been a resounding success thus far ahead of the imminent return trip to Earth.

All objectives have been fully accomplished and all that remains is for the unmanned Dragon cargo capsule to be detached from the huge outpost early Thursday morning, May 31, following by a mission ending splashdown and ocean recovery off the coast of California some 6 hours later.

Astronauts living aboard the huge Earth orbiting lab closed the hatches to the SpaceX Dragon capsule earlier today (May 30) and will finish their activities to seal the capsule for a safe departure before going to sleep later today ahead of tomorrow’s momentous final feats on this landmark mission.

Dragon is the world’s first commercial spacecraft and was built by Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX Corporation, founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.

This view of European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, Expedition 31 flight engineer, is among the first set of imagery from the crew showing the freshly opened SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. Credit: NASA

NASA and SpaceX described the Dragon’s upcoming unberthing and return to Earth activities at a news media briefing today.

The ISS crew is scheduled to disconnect the Dragon from the Earth-facing Harmony node using the station’s robotic arm at 4:05 a.m. EDT (0805 GMT), said NASA flight director Holly Ridings. They will release the Dragon from the arm’s grip into space at 5:35 a.m. EDT (0935 GMT).

“The Dragon really looks great,” Ridings told Universe Today.

Ridings said that the crew completed virtually “all the cargo [unloading and refilling] operations in a single day on Monday”.

Dragon will fire the first of a series of three small orbit transfer burns starting at 5:36 a.m. EDT (0936 GMT) to back it away from the orbiting lab complex. The big de-orbit burn lasting about 7 minutes is set for 10:51 am, the Dragon trunk will be jettisoned at 11:09 a.m., main chutes deploy at 11:36 a.m. and the splashdown in the Pacific Ocean is due at 11:44 a.m. (1544 GMT) some 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles off the West Coast of California using a flotilla of recovery vessels rented by SpaceX for the ocean retrieval process.

Although SpaceX has demonstrated the capability to safely return Dragon to Earth once before in December 2010, the firm is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s still a very challenging phase of flight,” said SpaceX Dragon Mission Manager John Couluris at the briefing. “Only a few countries have done this so far, so we’re not taking this lightly.”

“It will take about 2 to 3 days to return the capsule to the port of Los Angeles and then to the SpaceX facility in Texas for cargo unloading.”

Unlike the other Russian, European and Japanese cargo freighters that service the ISS and then disintegrate on reentry, the SpaceX Dragon is uniquely equipped with a heat shield (made of PICA-X) that allows it to plunge safely through the Earth’s atmosphere and survive the fiery temperatures exceeding more than 3000 degrees F (1600 degrees C).

The down mass capability restores another critical capability lost with the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in July 2011. The astronauts filled Dragon with about 620 kilograms (1367 pounds) of science experiments, trash and non-critical items on this historic test flight.

The Dragon arrived at the million pound orbiting space lab on May 25. On May 26, the crew opened the hatches and ‘Entered the Dragon’ for the first time.

Look here for a collection of incredible images snapped by European ISS astronaut Andre Kuipers who berthed Dragon at an open parking port on the ISS after it was snared with the 18 m (58 ft) Canadian robot arm by NASA astronaut Don Pettit.

Ridings said the astronauts used the robot arm to thoroughly inspect the Dragon’s exterior, trunk space and solar arrays.

“The results were very positive and our models were very accurate and match the on orbit Dragon configuration and clearances. On downstream flights we’ll be using Dextre on the end of the robot arm to reach around into the Dragon’s truck and grab payloads out,” Ridings told Universe Today.

Capturing SpaceX's Dragon. With clouds and land forming a backdrop, the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is grappled by the Canadarm2 robotic arm at the International Space Station. Expedition 31 Flight Engineers Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers grappled Dragon at 9:56 a.m. EDT and used the robotic arm to berth Dragon to the Earth-facing side of the station’s Harmony node at 12:02 p.m. May 25, 2012. Dragon became the first commercially developed space vehicle to be launched to the station to join Russian, European and Japanese resupply craft that service the complex while restoring a U.S. capability to deliver cargo to the orbital laboratory. Dragon is scheduled to spend about a week docked with the station before returning to Earth on May 31 for retrieval. Credit: NASA

Dragon is the world’s first commercial resupply vehicle. It was launched atop a SpaceX built Falcon 9 booster on May 22 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

SpaceX signed a contract with NASA in 2006 to conduct twelve Falcon 9/Dragon resupply missions to carry about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS at a cost of some $1.6 Billion over the next several years.

NASA TV will provide live coverage of Dragon’s return to Earth and ocean splash down starting at 2:30 a.m. EDT.

Ken Kremer

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Dragon Return Timeline from SpaceX – (times are approximate and subject to change)

5/31/12

Time (Pacific) — Event
01:05 — Dragon uninstalled using station’s robotic arm
02:35 — Dragon released by the station’s robotic arm
03:11 — Dragon’s Draco thrusters fire departure burns
04:07 — Unlatch/close/latch GNC door holding sensors
07:51 — Dragon’s Draco thrusters fire deorbit burn
08:09 — Dragon’s trunk is jettisoned
08:35 — Dragon’s drogue parachutes are deployed
08:36 — Dragon’s main parachutes are deployed
08:44 — Dragon lands in the Pacific

Former Astronaut Criticizes NASA’s Current Course

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Former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave is neither happy nor excited about the current state of the space administration or about the commercial COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program. He’s not happy, and he’s not afraid to say so.

“The whole thing is chaos and a cop out. The whole thing is a Washington failure,” Musgrave bluntly stated to Examiner.com’s Charles Atkeison in an interview this past weekend.

Story Musgrave in 1983 (NASA)

Musgrave was a NASA astronaut for over 30 years and was a crew member on six shuttle missions. He performed the first shuttle spacewalk on Challenger’s first flight, was a pilot on an astronomy mission, was the lead spacewalker on the Hubble repair mission and on his last flight he operated an electronic chip manufacturing satellite on Columbia.

He has 7 graduate degrees in math, computers, chemistry, medicine, physiology, literature and psychology. He has been awarded 20 honorary doctorates and was a part-time trauma surgeon during his 30 year astronaut career.

And, according to Atkeison, Musgrave “feels the space agency has no true goals or focus today.”

“We’re not going anywhere… there is no where, there is no what, and there is no when,” the former astronaut told Atkeison. “There is no Mars program, none. There is also no Moon program. There is no asteroid program… there’s no what we’re gonna do and no when we’re gonna do it.”

Neither does Musgrave put much faith in the value of the COTS program… which includes the upcoming launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

This isn’t the first time Musgrave has spoken out against NASA’s direction, either; in June of 2011 Musgrave lambasted the administration for its failure to have a “next step” after phasing out the shuttle program.

“Why are we so poor in our vision and so poor in our project management that we come to a point where it’s reasonable to phase out the current program and we have no idea what the next one is?” Musgrave said in 2011. “Washington has to stop doing that.”

Story Musgrave, now 76, currently operates a palm farm in Orlando, FL, a production company in Sydney and a sculpture company in Burbank, CA. He is also a landscape architect, a design professor and  a concept artist with Disney Imagineering. It’s clear that Musgrave is a man who knows what vision is — and isn’t. Still, he’s always honored to have had the opportunity to be a part of NASA.

“I’m massively privileged to be part of the space program, and I never forget to say that,” said Musgrave last year.

Read the full story by Charles Atkeison on Examiner.com here.

First spacewalk of the space shuttle era (STS-6) by Story Musgrave and Don Peterson to test new spacesuits and life support systems. (NASA)

SpaceX Dragon Launch Slides to May 19

[/caption]SpaceX has announced that the upcoming launch of the firms Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on the commercial COTS 2 mission has been postponed to a new target date of no earlier than May 19 with a backup launch date of May 22.

On May 19, the Falcon 9 rocket would lift off on its first night time launch at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Two launch opportunities had been available this week on May 7 and May 10, following the most recent slip from April 30.

SpaceX managers made the decision – in consultation with NASA – to delay the COTS 2 launch in order to complete further highly critical testing and verifications of all the flight software requirements for the Dragon spacecraft to safely and successfully carry its mission of rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).

“SpaceX and NASA are nearing completion of the software assurance process, and SpaceX is submitting a request to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a May 19th launch target with a backup on May 22nd,” said SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Grantham.

“Thus far, no issues have been uncovered during this process, but with a mission of this complexity we want to be extremely diligent.”

May 10 was the last window of opportunity this week because of the pending May 14 blast off of a new Russian Soyuz TMA-04M capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with three fresh crew members bound for the ISS which will restore the outpost to a full crew complement of 6 human residents.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon can only be launched about every three days.

The purpose of Dragon is to carry supplies up to and back from the ISS. Dragon is a commercial spacecraft developed by SpaceX and designed to replace some of the cargo resupply functions previously conducted by NASA’s fleet of prematurely retired Space Shuttle orbiters. At this moment the US has zero capability to launch cargo or crews to the ISS.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS on 1st test flight and Station Docking in 2012. Astronauts will grapple it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

In response to the SpaceX announcement, NASA issued the following statement from from William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington:

“After additional reviews and discussions between the SpaceX and NASA teams, we are in a position to proceed toward this important launch. The teamwork provided by these teams is phenomenal. There are a few remaining open items, but we are ready to support SpaceX for its new launch date of May 19.”

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

Dragon is loaded with nearly 1200 pounds of non-critical cargo such as food and clothing on this flight.

The COTS 2 mission has been repeatedly delayed since the originally planned target of mid-2011 when SpaceX requested that the COTS 2 and 3 flights be combined into one mission to save time. The first Dragon docking to the ISS was initially planned for the COTS 3 mission.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 19, 2012 to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 Set for Critical Engine Test Firing on Monday, April 30

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On Monday, April 30, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) is all set to conduct a critical static engine test fire of the Falcon 9 rocket at the firm’s launch pad on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

If all goes well, SpaceX and NASA are targeting a May 7 liftoff of the rocket and Dragon spacecraft at 9:38 AM, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). This launch signifies the first time that a commercial company is attempting to dock at the ISS.

The Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon bolted on top was rolled out to the pad at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) on the transporter-erecter on Sunday morning (April 29), SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Grantham told Universe Today.

“The Falcon 9 is vertical. Fueling begins Monday,” said Grantham.

On Sunday night, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted: “Dragon review completed. All systems now ready for full thrust hold down firing on Monday.”

Today the 180 foot long rocket was moved about 600 feet on rail tracks from the processing hanger to Pad 40 in anticipation of the engine test firing.

During the hotfire test, all nine of the powerful liquid fueled Merlin 1C first stage engines will be ignited at full power for two seconds as part of a full launch dress rehearsel for the flight, dubbed COTS 2. SpaceX engineers will run through all launch procedures on Monday as though this were an actual launch on launch day.

This is the second Falcon 9 launch for NASA as part of the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program designed to enable commercial firms to deliver cargo to the ISS following the retirement of NASA’s fleet of Space Shuttles. The first Falcon 9 COTS test flight took place in December 2010.

The Dragon spacecraft being rotated before it is mated to the Falcon 9 rocket in SpaceX’s hangar in Cape Canaveral, FL. CREDIT: NASA

You can watch a live webcast of the engine test at www.spacex.com starting at 2:30 PM ET/ 11:30 AM PT, with the actual static fire targeted for 3:00 PM ET/ 12:00 PM PT according to SpaceX.

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 7, 2012 to the ISS. The Falcon 9 booster was moved on rail tracks to the pad on April 29 and the Merlin 1C first stage engines (at right) will be test fired on April 30. Credit: Ken Kremer